Defining a Focus – How to Define Value to Customers

While very few of our engagements have the explicit mission of totally transforming the business, most involve the implementation of highly specific initiatives that ultimately change everything.

One of my favorite quotes related to our work of implementing change is from Helen Keller…”People don’t stumble over mountains, they stumble over pebbles.” As consultants, when we do our jobs well, our clients slip, trip, and stumble less often; and they all-together avoid the catastrophic pitfalls on their path to the desired state. When things do get out of shape, we help people correct quickly. When we do our jobs exceptionally well our clients might say, “It was a walk in the park. Thanks for going with me.”

We learned from the project examples in the study that the direct benefit of managed change implementation (well planned and executed deployment of change) is that the energy and resources of the organization are conserved. That is, they are properly focused on getting necessary things done and generating ample momentum toward performing in alignment with the desired state. There is coherence in the effort. More energy and resources are applied to making the change happen as the business continues to operate; while little energy and resources are lost due to bad planning, poor execution, and disruption of business operations.

To derive this value requires that the leaders of the change have a realistic view of the magnitude, cost, and impact of the change (The ‘What’). Those who will be executing the change and those who are most affected by it need timely and accurate information about what is going to happen, when it’s coming, and what is expected of them (The ‘How’).


Water Drop: Visualizing the change being ‘deployed’ outward in concentric circles of action from a center of planned interventions. The ‘well ordered’ view from above.

The results of the study demonstrate that it is clearly the responsibility of the client’s leadership to define what the organization is intending to do and why: “What the change is, what value it has to the business, and why it makes sense for this change to happen now.” Why is this change good for our customers and how does it improve the health and vitality of our business? To define “A clear and unambiguous intent.”

An essential value-add of the consultant’s role is helping the client understand the elements of the change process that must be managed, and helping them develop and articulate a plan that is theirs. The consultant helps the client see, quantify, and express the value of on-time delivery of the change, and the value of waste prevention in the change process (energy and resources not lost to rework, wrong turns, unproductive resistance, unanticipated problems, being late…). It is also within the purview of the consultant to help the client express how/why this change is useful and worthwhile to those who implement it, and to them (the client) personally.

A number of principles emerged through the study. How does a consultant guide the application of these principles such that leadership recognizes their ownership of the change, and their role in ensuring the inclusion of those who will be most affected by it? (To the extent the change is not ‘owned’ it must be supervised. Supervision is one of the highest costs of doing business.)

Breaker: Experiencing the change at the beachhead as it comes at you with all its force and fury. And even though you know it will keep coming at you, wave after wave, you can only see the wave breaking right in front of you. The visceral view from the front.


  1. Only a commonly held picture can be made real. Successful projects don’t stop with a description of things in highly technical, financial, or procedural terms. There is great value in helping the client develop granularity in their understanding and articulation of the desired state. The clearer, more consistently held, and current the ‘picture,’ of what things will look like when we have succeeded, the less effort it takes to keep things aligned and working in concert (helping the client move beyond jargon and ‘comfortable’ rhetoric). People need to see where they will be, what they will be doing/not doing, and who they will be interacting with.
  1. Clarity of intent. The client must be able to tell the story in clear, unambiguous terms, what change is being made and what facts support the need to make it.
  1. Change is personal. One of my favorite question sets for the client: “Why is this change important to you?” “Beyond the business value of the change, what does successful implementation mean for you? What do you get out of it, personally?” The connection to the client’s intrinsic motivation ignites within them and others the commitment to action.
  1. Respect and empathy determine the quality of outcomes. It takes some time for people to come to grips with the implications of change. People process things differently. Those who are directing and implementing the change need to account for the human capacity to absorb the concept and reality of the change so people can be prepared to respond appropriately. Ultimately, every individual involved and/or affected by a change makes decisions about how they will deal with it. The response to these decisions, the actions taken and not taken, are the real normative cultural precedents for the ‘desired state.’

In the successful examples of change implementation we studied, the process of developing the change plan reflected the principles of how the change would be implemented. The effort/process was exemplary of the intended result.

Solution Finding – Engagement, Measurement, Reinforcement

The study was based on success stories. In each story there were specific plans to build inclusion, to practice adoption along the way. There were effective measures of progress simply expressed; signposts people could relate to. The value of the results intended became understood, expressed, and ultimately personalized by people who would implement and be directly affected. Along the way, especially in the early stages, participation of almost any kind was reinforced. Over time, only behavior more specifically aligned to future performance was reinforced. At the macro level, these success projects could be viewed as long term shaping plans that helped people make sense out of what was going to happen, understand in real and meaningful terms why, and helped to realize real personal benefits as they progressively moved toward the end state.

If you define 70% of the problem, the solution will appear. If you engage the right 10% of the population in the process of defining the problem, the path for adoption for everyone else will appear.


People in the study reported that “Things really became clear when people began asking, ‘How are we going to do this?” This question indicates that people have a grasp of ‘what and why’ and have moved on to ‘how.’

When we were designing the deployment strategy for Tenets of Safe Operations for Global Refining we held interviews and focus groups in each refinery comprised of vertical slices of the organization; operators to division supervisors. We had face-to-face contact with 10% of the total population in each refinery. It was during one of these sessions we gleaned the parameter on which the entire deployment strategy was based, “Just walk. Don’t talk.” Don’t ‘tell us about it.’ Show us what it means.

Finding solutions in the early stages of change implementation is learning how to access the people who are going to be doing the work to make the change happen and who will likely be there after. Participants in the study described how they wrestled with the problem of, “How do you bring people to the dialog about implementing the change in a way that really captures their interest? One of the key findings is that people managing successful projects viewed early resistance and objections as interest rather than opposition and they built on it.


We learned that there is a critical difference between ‘In-process’ vs. ‘results’ measures.

“We knew we had moved out of phase one when people were asking, “How do we do this?” This is not a result or end-state measure, but a very powerful indication that people have ‘moved on.’ People reported that the greatest temptation, and potential error, was to try to answer the question. The proper response was to “Ask them how they thought it could be done, or what to be sure to ‘not do’.”

There is an axiom that asserts that, “People do what is measured.” It should be modified to say, “…for a while.” The study proved that people do what is consistently paid attention to. Measurement is only one component of paying attention.

Within the context of the change implementation process, it is essential to have both interim and results measures that focus attention on achievement of meaningful results, and not activity. We were once asked to investigate some failures in adoption of a “Loss Prevention System” that had at its core a measurement of management work observations and required that a form be filled out. Managers had a quarterly quota of work observations. The way the measurement was applied resulted in a majority of managers writing up work observations at the end of the quarter, either from memory or imagination. There was no correlation between the measurement of the number of work observations recorded and the dialog that was supposed to occur between supervisors and operators about what was observed relative to the implementation of various safe work practices. Supervisors were getting good at falsifying reports vs. interacting with their employees about behavior that could result in injury or death.


As a precursor, we learned from talking with managers of successful projects that ‘reinforcement’ is anything that ‘strengthens’ a behavior. One of the things successful project leaders did was to develop an acute understanding of what ‘held behavior in place’ in the current state. Why do people do what they do now? Failure to understand this will often doom efforts to reinforce new behavior because the reinforcement for ‘old behavior’ is still in play and has more reinforcement value than the new consequences for desired behavior.

From the study we learned that in the early stages of the change process it is imperative to learn what holds existing behavior in place before looking at what ‘should’ reinforce future/desired behavior. A consequence is ‘reinforcing’ if it strengthens a behavior (makes it more likely to occur in the future). It has to be relevant and strong, and must ‘compete’ successfully with reinforcements that pay off for how people do what they do today.

Six successful projects were studied. An interesting common element is what I thought of as determined project leadership. I met all of them and believe they would have succeeded no matter what. For each of them, the project ‘could not fail.’ It was important to them. Also, each of them had someone they could ‘talk to’ about how things were going. They had someone they trusted that was ‘outside’ the context of change who they trusted.